The Crying Room
The room had no windows. Its walls and floors were grey, and it smelled of fear.
The concrete was icy under my bare feet. I kept my head down, arms folded tightly across my jutting ribs, shame mounting in my cheeks. Bony shoulders and elbows crowded me, jostling and shoving, a huddled mass of naked women in the blue cold of an Austrian winter.
“I’d rather stay filthy than freeze to death in here,” the girl next to me muttered. Long hair hung in strings over her face. Her eyes were haunted.
“Move!” Came the guttural shout, and the girl lurched against me as more women were pushed through the door. The crush of bodies was becoming unbearable in that confined space.
“We have a surprise for you!” one guard sneered, over the cries of protest. “We don’t want any of you dirty whores to miss out.” Another shove, and several women stumbled and nearly fell.
I shivered at the hatred in that voice, eyeing the shower heads that were suspended overhead. “A shower,” they had told us. “A special treat by order of the Fuhrer.”
The laughter of the guards was still echoing in my ears as the heavy metal door clanged shut. The sound reverberated with a chilling finality that seemed to ring over the swell of bickering, cries and cursing, until one by one, the women fell silent.
The silence grew like a living thing, a spreading fungus of doubt. The walls closed in.
“Where’s the water?” someone whispered.
I squeezed my eyes shut against the sudden pain in my heart. I knew there would be no water. I had heard the stories. One woman in my wooden dormitory had been transferred here – to Mauthausen – from Auschwitz. She had told me about rooms like these, concrete death boxes where women waited for a shower only to find that gas came out instead.
We had been led here to die.
The realisation spread as slowly as cancer. I raised my head and looked into the faces around me; more simian than human, stripped gaunt by starvation and brutality. The eyes were too large for those skeletal heads. And as I watched, death dawned in every gaze.
The crying seemed to rise from the floor itself, as slowly and quietly as the morning dew. Women too ravaged to produce a single tear sobbed with dry exhalations of breath; desperately, quietly, hopelessly. Some began to wail, a wringing sound that flayed my heart.
“Oh, God,” I breathed, wrenched by despair. “Oh God, oh God, oh God…”
Unbidden, a long ago image rose in my mind. It was my father, his creased face lit by the candles on the table as he poured water over his hands; first one cup, then another. It was Shabbat, and he was offering the blessing over the loaves of challah that lay before us. Tonight, though, he paused before saying the hamotzei.
“My children,” he said, calling us to his side. His big hands were warm as he laid them on our foreheads.
“Yevarechecha Adonai V'yyishmerecha,” he murmured, blessing us in turn. “Yaer adonai panav eilecha v'chuneka. Yisa Sdonai panav eilecha v'yaseim lecha shalom.”
May God bless you and guard you. May the light of God shine upon you and may God be gracious to you. May the presence of God be with you and give you peace.
A sob caught in my throat as the candlelit hush of that room filled my heart.
Then another room rose to mind – this one small, and shabby, and dark. A hiding place. A shelter, where a Christian family had hidden us in the face of Nazi persecution. Only a small room, but it was there that I learned about Jesus.
“Oh, Lord,” I whispered, and his warmth flowed through my numb limbs; a flame that could not be extinguished. My heart grew quiet within me. The press of sobbing bodies that pinned me in – the concrete walls, the barred door – could not contain my spirit. He was my retreat, my place of safety.
Always. Even here.
“Let me live forever in your sanctuary,” I prayed, remembering the beautiful Psalm, and the warmth of his presence enveloped me like a blessing in that grey room even as the gas filtered down with a sigh.
“…safe, Father God, beneath the shelter of your wings.”
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